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Canine Comprehension: How Much Do Our Dogs Understand?

Updated on January 8, 2015

You got your pig?

Where is your Pig?

I'm sure that the majority of us know about the dog who can recognize words like "treat" or "walk", but who has heard about the dog that can comprehend beyond the basics? What about the dog that can not only properly respond to your commands, but one that can pick up on your phrases and comments even when they aren't directed at them? Just because dogs lack the ability to speak to us does not mean that they lack the ability to understand and react to the things we say to or around them.

My dog, Odin, knows all of his toys by name. "Where is your rope toy?" I will say, and put my hands up in question. Odin, a black pug, goes over to his toy basket and seconds later returns with his tug-of-war rope toy to play with me. "Where is your Lady?" Odin will then look around the room until he spots his ladybug stuffy which he will then bring to me so we can play fetch. Whenever I buy Odin a new toy, I will spend a few moments introducing him to the toy saying things like "Do you want your Ducky? Get that Ducky! Get Ducky! Ducky, Ducky, Ducky!" I will repeat the name of the toy over and over while playing with Odin, and the next time I ask him to bring me his Ducky, he will seek it out, even if it is at the very bottom of his toy basket. Is Odin a genius? Am I a master dog trainer? Neither is very likely. More probable is dogs' natural capacity to learn and retain the meaning of a variety of words.

One of the most impressive instances of a dog knowing human words, at least in regards to toy identification, is a Border Collie named Chaser who knew the names of roughly 1,022 different objects. Now that's one for the record books!

Canine Cleaning

Do my dogs know I'm hoping they don't jump out of the tub while I take their picture?
Do my dogs know I'm hoping they don't jump out of the tub while I take their picture?

How much does he really know?

Funny enough, names of objects do not seem to be the only things that dogs can comprehend. My dog Odin is particularly fascinated with the word "want". "Do you want to play?" "Do you want dinner?" "Do you want a treat?" I can just say the words "do you want" and his little ears will perk up and his head will tilt to the side with intense anticipation. He may not know what is coming after the "want", but he seems to be extremely aware of the fact that it means something good is coming his way. This may in part to the fact that I have never used the word want in a negative context with him. I have never said "Do you want a spanking?" or "Do you want to go to the vet?".

More amazing yet, this knowledge of the word want is only a fragment of the vast vocabulary that Odin seems to possess, most of which was never deliberately taught. Some of the phrases he understands include:

Watch out! (something I say when I need him to get out of the way)

What is this? (used when he is in trouble, usually resulting in his cowering or pouting)

Scoot over. (I say this when I need him to move over on the sofa)

Are you hungry?/Do you want dinner? (at hearing either of these phrases Odin will excitedly run to sit next to his bowls)

Is that daddy? (a phrase I usually say when my fiancé Aaron is coming home, at which time Odin will run over to the door to see him. Sometimes, if I say something about "daddy" even when he is not about to walk through the door Odin will go to check for him. Or, if Aaron is already at home and I say something like "You love your daddy, don't you?" Odin will look toward Aaron, which I find incredible!)

Let's go to bed. (Here, Odin will hop off the couch, grab his bedtime baby, and head to the bedroom)

There are a number of other phrases that Odin understands that I have not listed here.

Canine Cover Model

How does my dog always know how to pose so perfectly.
How does my dog always know how to pose so perfectly.

Give Your Words Context

What seems to be a significant indicator on the number of words and phrases that dogs are familiar with is how much the owner talks to the dog, especially in context. For example, if you talk about going for a walk as you are grabbing the leash, or if you ask him if he's hungry as you are scooping his food out of the bag. When context is added to the introduction or repetition of words and phrases, dogs are that much more likely to gain an understanding of what we are saying to them. Odin was my only companion when I moved away to college. I used him as an audience every time I practiced for a presentation and used his head tilts as cues for good intonation and fluctuation. I talked to him when I was about to do something, go somewhere, get something, or even when I was just thinking out loud. Odin has been exposed to language on a regular basis since the day I brought him home from the breeder. I am continuously impressed with his ability to react and respond based on only my words.

How have you noticed that your own pooch responds to human language? Just keep talking to them. Maybe one day, they'll speak back. ;)

Dog Talk

How often do you talk to your dog?

See results

Sources on Canine Comprehension of human language

Dogs Attempting to Speak Back!


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